Liz Lyles - inspired at Frankfurt

Liz Lyles did her first triathlon in 2002 and the next year scored a win in the 20-24 age group at Oceanside 70.3 which qualified her for Kona where she finished in 11:26:37. The next year, Lyles set a course record winning the 20-24 age group at Escape From Alcatraz and for the next three years had a strong age group record that could have launched her into the pro ranks.

Instead, she and husband Chip decided to start a family first and they welcomed Luke and Emma into their lives. Four years later, she rejoined the running and triathlon world stronger, better and faster. “I’ve learned some very important lessons as a mom,” she told the Catholic Business Journal last year. “Discipline, responsibility and commitment have taken on a whole new meaning. I’m not sure I had the right focus to compete professionally before I experienced motherhood. I’m more focused no than I ever have been.”

Lyles showed how much potential she had with a PR 2:50:41 at the California International Marathon in 2011 and started fast when she became a pro triathlete in mid-2012, taking 4th at Boulder 70.3 in her first pro outing and then won Ironman Wisconsin a month later. In 2013, she won Boise 70.3, took 5th at Ironman Frankfurt, placed 16th at Kona and capped off her first full year as a pro with an 8:59:44 first place at Ironman Western Australia.

While she did not win Frankfurt, her 2nd place finish and Ironman PR of 8:56:36 made her the 62nd fastest woman at the Ironman distance. More impressive she is now the 5th fastest woman at one of the most challenging Ironman courses and did it against one of the most talented fields of the year.

Slowtwitch: Why was the Frankfurt Ironman course a good fit for you?

Liz Lyles: I’m not sure what it is about the swim, but I’ve had the two best swims of my career in Frankfurt. The swim is flat and fast I suppose. My last big bike ride at home before heading to Frankfurt was 110 miles of the Ironman Lake Tahoe course, and I was 10 minutes faster than I’ve ever ridden it. The Frankfurt bike course has some hills, but I train on the Lake Tahoe course regularly, which is right here in my own backyard, so when I come down from between 6000’ and 7000’ of elevation with monster climbs to under 1000’ above sea level, and face 100’-200’ climbs, my legs and lungs feel amazing.

ST: Take us through your race, starting with the swim. Your 53:40 split seems to have been 4-6 minutes behind serious rivals Jodie Swallow, Mary Beth Ellis, Gina Crawford, Amy Marsh, and Katja Konschak -- and 43 seconds ahead of Corinne Abraham and 6 minutes ahead of Kristin Moller and Natasha Badmann. How satisfied were you at that point?

Liz: I was very satisfied. The swim started out as a pretty big cluster, I was very confused with who was wearing what color caps, etc. Starting with the pro men and 400 age groupers was very challenging. I couldn't tell where any women were. I got mixed in with a few age group men, so honesty I had no idea how many girls were ahead of me or behind me. When I glanced at my watch at the exit I was pleased with a 53 minutes-plus swim. I was really just focused my race and wasn't thinking about where I fell in the placing. Even though it was 20 seconds slower than last year, I was relatively faster than the other ladies who raced here last year. They were 1-3 minutes slower. I didn’t know that at the time, but having been close to last year’s split I was content, and focused on pushing myself harder than I ever have on the bike.

ST: What did this race mean to you?

Liz: Ironman Frankfurt was an important race for me this year. Yeah, I wanted to secure Kona points, and make a few dollars. And yes, I wanted to make a good showing in a deep field too. But all of those things took a backseat to what truly inspired me to the best race of my career last weekend. I dedicated this race to my Uncle Tom Demgen, my dad’s younger brother, who died from cancer less than 48 hours after I finished. He was the most easygoing, laid back person who was always smiling, listening and laughing in conversation. He and his wife, Fran, are some of my biggest fans and supporters, and always sent me words of encouragement before and after races. I will miss him dearly. He had been battling a tough fight in the past few months, and the last time I got to see him was the day after Wildflower on my drive home. I had a picture of him taped to my bike during this race, as a constant reminder of his bravery and courage during his final weeks. So the race was very emotional for me.

ST: Where does this performance stand in relation to your career best races, and why?

Liz: This is definitely at the top. Winning Ironman Western Australia and breaking 9 hours for the first time was pretty special, but to throw down a new PR in a championship race…getting second is an even bigger breakthrough. When I’m healthy, which I wasn’t before Lake Tahoe (4th), Hawaii (16th), or Boise 70.3 this year (2nd), I think I continue to get faster.

ST: During the ride could you keep track of the leaders?

Liz: I think over the course of the entire bike ride, I got two time checks off the leaders. The first one was heading through town from T1. I heard I was 6:40 down on the leaders. I assumed it as Swallow and Ellis in front, being they are incredible swimmers, but I didn't let it break my spirits.

ST: On the bike, you rode 4:56:53, 8th among 8 women to break 5 hours. Were there any key moments staying within reach of your rivals?

Liz: Before the race I spoke with Cliff to come up with a strategy for the bike. I told him sometimes I feel like I go out too hard in the early stages for my ability and pay for it near the end of the bike. We broke the bike into different segments, and had specific targets for watts. I went out strong in the first segments and felt solid, but stayed disciplined as to not blow up.

ST: Were there any close calls or moments of doubt? How did you evaluate your energy levels approaching the run?

Liz: I was passed by Corinne [Abraham] and a few others on the first loop of the bike. Little by little age group men were trickling by and I feel this caused me to lose momentum, as I had to drop back to the legal 10m, which at that point another age grouper would pass and I’d have to drop back again. It was frustrating to say the least, but I kept my focus, targeting my watts, hydration, and nutrition. Around mile 80 it became more of a mental battle. In my head I just start talking to myself and act like it’s a training ride. For example, ‘OK, hit the lap button, do 10 miles at x watts, then you get 1 mile easier to focus on eating, hydration…’ At the last aid station at the top of the last climb, I grabbed a bottle of water and cooled down my entire body, grabbed some food and PowerAde, and started mentally preparing for the run.

ST: What training and racing and mental sharpness has contributed to your peak fitness at this race?

Liz: Cliff English is an absolutely brilliant coach. He provides world class training programs for me, race strategies that make 100% perfect sense, but are in terms I could never come up with on my own, and solid advice outside of competition. I follow his workouts exactly as he writes them, and race for exactly the numbers he provides me. Of course staying healthy with two young kids is tough, and getting plenty of rest before races is critical too. Training at altitude in the Reno-Tahoe area is very challenging as well, and 5 out of 6 of my last long rides were on red-flag wind warning days. This definitely helped with the mental side.

ST: What was traffic like on the bike leg? Many age group men in the vicinity you needed to avoid? Did you have any back and forth rivalries during the bike, or were you largely alone?

Liz: I was mostly alone…I’m pretty much always alone on the bike. It seems like in every race there are the super-fast swimmers who bike together, and some slower swimmers that blow by me on the bike, but it’s rare for any of the other pro women with the same swim splits as me to have a similar bike pace. Swallow and Ellis came out of the water together, and if you look at their splits, they appear to have biked together almost the entire race. I don’t have a problem with that as long as 10 meters is the same for them as it is for everyone else. If you look at their run splits, it’s tough to argue they gained any advantage from riding together, but who knows what happened out there? It would be nice to have company on the bike, but I never seem to have that luxury. As for the age group men (and for that matter, the issue of them starting with the pros)…there were several times when a pack swarmed around me, often how I previously described it, and sometimes worse! This has potential to become a serious safety issue, and also a race altering obstacle. Corinne Abraham beat me by almost 4 minutes (she tore it up out there), so I don’t think there was any impact to my position at the finish line, fortunately….but the potential is definitely there. The potential for drafting exists as well. There’s been a lot of chatter post-race about this problem, and I’m completely on board…same as I was after last year’s race in Frankfurt which had the same format…this problem can easily be fixed, it’s just a matter of getting it done.

ST: Did you have any regrets about your bike split?

Liz: I think in the past I didn’t go as hard as I thought I could on the bike in fear that my 3 hour marathon wouldn't show up. This definitely something I am working on, finding just the right balance.

ST: How did this bike split compare to your other best Ironman bike splits?

Liz: I’ve pushed it a little harder in each of my last three healthy Ironmans -- Frankfurt, Western Australia, and Frankfurt last year. If you look at my splits, I keep improving on the bike, and I’m still managing to hold it together on the run. I love my Specialized Shiv, which I first raced in Kona last year, and my Zipp wheels. All the work Rich at Velo Reno has done on my bike is outstanding -- it me suits me very well.

ST: What do you think of 47-year-old Natasha Badmann’s race-best 4:44:25 bike split on a relatively tough course?

Liz: Natasha Badmann is a legend. I have a framed poster of her in my garage from the 2006 Hawaii Ironman…incredibly inspiring image. It’s an honor to be able to race with her. She pretty much smoked me on the bike.

ST: Where did you stand among your rival pro women starting the run? What were you thinking strategically?

Liz:I was 8+ minutes behind the leaders, and in 10th place. Normally that’s not a big gap for me, but in this field, I had a lot of concerns. Strategically I was trying to go with what Cliff and I had talked about pacing the early stages of the run. I have been having some of my best long runs lately, and knew what paces I could hold at the beginning, middle and end. I remained steady, and towards the end began passing almost everyone.

ST: Can you recall at what mile/kilometer you passed the women ahead of you?

Liz: Parts of the run are still such a blur. I was so focused on my running form, pace and just looking forward I am not sure I can accurately remember each pass. At mile 2 there is an out and back section where I could see some of the girls and I think I was about 3-5 minutes down on four of them. I really tried to be patient and smart, and not go too hard too early to catch them. I caught Amy [Marsh] just before the start of the second lap. Then I caught Natasha [Badmann] maybe at mile 7 or 8, and she gave some friendly encouragement. Then I remember passing [Mary Beth] Ellis and [Jodie] Swallow maybe on the third loop? It’s hard to remember everything in the final stages of an Ironman.

ST: Did any of them stick with you and fight back?

Liz: Before I make a pass I want to make sure I am running comfortable with good form and even pacing. I did not hear anyone try to hang on or try to fight back.

ST: Who was the last woman you passed?

Liz: The final pass I made was on Gina Crawford with 2 miles to go…a fellow mom, and a lady for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration. She is a consistent top ten finisher in Kona, and an 11-time Ironman champion. For the final 2 miles of the run I must have asked my bike escort ten times if she was still close behind…I never felt confident with second place until I crossed the finish line.

ST: What are your feelings when you see an esteemed competitor like Mary Beth Ellis fighting cramps at the end of the race?

Liz: I have a tremendous amount of respect for her. She had a tough injury to overcome at the end of last season, and she is a heck of a competitor with a remarkable record. I didn’t know about the cramps. It’s unfortunate, but things like cramps, the flu, a head cold…none of us are immune …that’s why we go out and race…anyone is capable of their best or worst day in any given Ironman.

ST: At any point on the course could you see Corinne Abraham? At that moment, what was your calculation of your chances?

Liz: Corinne passed me on the bike. She looked strong, but I was having a good bike ride too, but again I was just trying to manage my own race. She smashed it though, and ran a 3:04. Incredible performance on her part, and she earned every bit of the win.

ST: What is unique about the Frankfurt crowds -- and especially the finish area?

Liz: Biking through the villages is spectacular. The run is 4 loops, so it’s basically packed with spectators for the entire course. You definitely get energy from the crowd. The finish line is right up there with Hawaii. One of the best. The Germans really get out there. Frankfurt is an incredible event…awesome.

ST: What do you think about Corinne Abraham’s comeback from devastating injuries last year? How does this inform your appreciation of your good health - and the fragility of high level endurance athletics?

Liz: I can honestly say I feel bad when anyone gets hurt. Certainly I said some prayers for Camilla Pedersen, who won this race last year and suffered head injuries that left her in a coma for several weeks. It’s frustrating to be sidelined for any reason, especially things you can’t control. Both of those comebacks are remarkable [Abraham won and Pedersen swam 51:26 and biked 4:52:14 but did not finish the run], and an admirable display of patience. There’s definitely a delicate balance between pushing your limits, and remaining cautious to avoid injury. I’m 36 years old now, and I don’t believe I’ve reached my peak. I do recognize that I have a few top years left, and I don’t want to spend them injured, but I’d hate to retire feeling like I left any of my potential behind me. I’m definitely pushing harder now than ever before. Knock on wood that I can stay injury free!

ST: What did your husband and children say to you after the race?

Liz: Nobody is as in tune with my training and racing as my husband, Chip. He kept telling me before the race that if I raced like I did in Australia that I’d finish on the podium…regardless of who is there or how they performed. When I travel without him for a race, and pass someone on the run I always think about what he is doing at home, hovered over the computer watching the coverage. I called him immediately after the race…he was stoked, ecstatic, and of course tired from watching the race from 10 PM PST to 7 AM in the morning. I remember he said, “You did it!” I replied, “We did it!” The kids…of course, they are 4 and 6 now, and just want to know why I didn’t win. They are proud of me though, too.

ST: Looking back, you had a heck of a lot of Ironman races last year and did well. After acquiring all those KPR points, might you consider cutting back on your loaded 2013 schedule in order to stay healthy and fit for Kona?

Liz: That is something I’ll talk over with Chip and Cliff. The long training blocks without racing can be difficult because there is a lot of work with no reward. I don’t have any Ironman races planned between now and Kona, but depending on how the recovery goes after this race, I’m eying two 70.3’s…both close to home.